Automatic Gates’ Deadly Legacy

Last month, the automated gate industry implemented a new voluntary standard ostensibly designed to decrease the chances that individuals will become entrapped, injured or killed by a motorized gate. Will it matter? Automatic gates have been crushing people with regularity since communities and businesses began installing them in the early 1970s, despite occasional education campaigns, amended standards and high recognition among industry and regulators about the safety hazards.

“There have been multiple cases where the gates don’t reverse even though they have a reversing mechanism,” says attorney Bryan Crews, who represents the family of a 12-year-old Florida girl who suffered permanent brain injuries after a 2013 incident. “It’s a hidden trap waiting to spring on unsuspecting children and adults. With more and more gated communities and office buildings you are going to see increasing reports of injuries and deaths.”

A Paucity of Data

On January 23, 2013, Johanna Lugo, was awaiting the school bus at the entrance to Placid Lake Townhomes, a gated community in Sanford, Florida, when she somehow became entrapped between the bottom of the motorized gate and the curb at the entrance to the subdivision. Lugo was discovered at about 9 a.m. by a neighbor who was returning to the complex. As she approached the gate, she noticed that they were open, and Lugo unconscious lying under the partially opened left portion of the entry gate, lying on her back, facing upward and having trouble breathing. The neighbor and another woman were unable to physically push the gate off her body; Lugo was eventually freed by a jack that lifted the gate off of its hinges. The loss of oxygen caused ischemic, hypoxic brain damage and other severe injuries that require constant medical care.

Other victims did not get help in time, and succumbed to their injuries. Among the recent deaths:

In July, a 63-year-old woman in Oakland County, Michigan, was crushed to death by an automatic gate at the tool and die shop where she worked. The woman was found pinned by an employee, with her running vehicle parked nearby. Officials said that the woman had reached through the gate to open it with her keys, and became trapped between the gate and the electrical box. 

In May 2015, 8-year-old Matthew Cattlet died in North Las Vegas after getting stuck in an electronic gate. Police said that the boy was crawling through a rectangular hole, when his friend accidentally triggered the gate mechanism to open.

In July 2014, Crevan O’Ciellaigh, 28, died after he was crushed by an automatic gate at the Montecito Condominiums, in West Palm Beach, Florida. According to police reports, O’Ciellaigh was found on the ground, pinned by the northwest entrance/exit gate, which was slightly opened. O’Ciellaigh was sitting up facing east and the gate was on top of his back.

But it is difficult to get current data on the scope of the problem. The only official fatality count comes from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which in 2001 noted that since 1985, it had identified 32 deaths related to automatic gates, including 20 deaths to children. Further, from 1990 to 2000, the CPSC estimated that nearly 25,000 people had been involved in automatic gate-related injuries, including 9,000 children under 15 years old. Each year, over 2,000 people, including 800 children, were treated in hospital emergency rooms for injuries to the head, neck, arm, or hand, the CPSC reported.

Since then, there has been little data collection, other than occasional news stories. In 2012, Thomas A. DeSilvia, of the Chamberlain Group, which bills itself as “the world's largest manufacturer of residential and commercial door operators, access control products and gate operators,” gave a presentation noting that in the mid-2000s there were five fatalities. DeSilvia also noted that while the quality of automatic gates was improving, the number of crushing incidents was rising, as were the number of civil actions against gate installers and manufacturers.

Manufacturers Know They Have an Ongoing Problem

The industry, represented by the Door & Access Systems Manufacturers Association (DASMA), is keenly aware of its liability. The industry’s main trade magazine Doors and Access Systems, has repeated references to risk exposure, litigation, and the possibility of injury and death. The publication has featured articles such as How to Survive a Deposition, written by DASMA’s legal counsel Naomi Angel, and How to Respond to Customer Injury, which advises: “Don’t admit fault or liability. That can only be determined after an investigation of the facts and laws.”

An article about certifying installers notes: “Ignorance of the standards is not a viable excuse in a court of law. Failure to understand and apply these standards can result in an unsafe gate system and costly liability for your company.” 

In an article about dealers’ need to understand the standards, DASMA President Rick Sedivy acknowledges: “Many gate operator dealers are not intimately familiar with these standards. He worries that dealers wrongfully believe their minimal role in installation relieves them of code compliance liability. “Dealers should feel an obligation to the ultimate user,” Sedivy says. "In addition to helping dealers avoid litigation, meeting safety standards is good business.” 

Finally, an article about the impact of standards published in 2000 featured the thoughts of three gate company owners, including Janice Mucera of North East Gate Operator Supply, Huntington Station, N.Y., who noted:

In 1989, when I began in this business, most “safety” devices focused on vehicular protectionÍž the human factor and photo beams were seldom an issue. We then often sold a complete automation package that gave the client a better gate system and gave the 
installers an opportunity to offer more options and thus increase profits. As the years passed, I read and heard of gate operator incidents that unfortunately resulted in injuries and even deaths. This revelation was unsettling. Liability should be a major concern for all businesses. I knew that the “complete package” approach would continue to be the best way to limit my clients’ and my liability exposure. 

Despite this awareness of safety obligations and legal risks, testifying expert Dr. Stephen Wexler, who has worked with plaintiffs and defendants observed that safety is not getting enough attention. According to a 2007 Door & Access Systems article, Wexler, a construction engineer, who “has worked on 200 trials, has given more than 500 depositions, and has been retained and consulted for thousands of cases,” said: 

“In the automated gate cases I’ve worked on, it’s particularly disheartening when the safety technology is available, but it’s not being used…I’ve spoken with several people in the gate operator industry who are trying very hard to add safety to these installations,” he says. “But from my perspective, I don’t see safety information being disseminated.” 

“Today’s gate operator manufacturers provide a lot of advanced safety technology,” he adds, “but that technology is not well understood or communicated.”

Ineffective Voluntary Standards

There are no federal standards governing the manufacture, design or installation on automatic gates, only voluntary standards released by Underwriters Laboratory (UL) and ASTM, and written in conjunction with industry groups. 

UL 325 was first established in 1973, focusing on the electric operation of garage doors. After an accumulation of garage door fatalities — the CPSC noted 54 deaths and 37 serious injuries of children 15 between 1982 and 1992— the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 1990 required that all residential garage door openers produced after Jan. 1, 1993 meet new entrapment-protection requirements in the third edition of UL 325.

In 1993, this law and the development and adoption of photo-eye technology and reversing mechanisms led the gate operator industry, with monitoring by the CPSC, to begin writing provisions for electric gate operators to amend UL 325. By 1998, UL determined that a separate standard should be created for the vehicular gate itself, and the DASMA, the American Fence Association, and the National Ornamental & Miscellaneous Metals Association formed a committee to write ASTM F2200.

In March 2000, UL adopted the new UL325 standard governing gate operators and some other types of operators. The standard included entrapment protection and other safety related requirements. “The new provisions were primarily intended to improve the ability of an automated vehicular gate system to sense and protect against an individual becoming entrapped by a moving gate.” 

The standards for residential and public vehicular gates require two separate and different entrapment sensing devices, such as a current sensing or zero-speed sensing device and a non-contact photoelectric sensor, an edge device or an actuating device requiring continuous pressure to maintain opening or closing motion of the gate. 

Starting in January 2016, a new version of UL 325 requires gate operators to “have a minimum of two independent means of entrapment protection where the risk of entrapment or obstruction exists. A manufacturer can use two inherent-type systems, two external-type systems, or an inherent and an external system to meet the requirement. However, the same type of device cannot be used for both means of protection.”  The new edition also requires that external non-contact sensors or contact sensors used for entrapment protection must be monitored once every cycle for the correct connection to the operator and the correct operation of the sensor. “If the device is not present, not functioning, or is shorted, then the gate operator can only be operated by constant pressure on the control device. Portable wireless controls will not function in this case.” In addition, “manufacturers are required to provide instructions for the placement of external devices, but they give only examples of suggested entrapment protection in their installation manuals. If the installer identifies a risk of entrapment or obstruction, at least two independent means of entrapment protection are required.”

Scott Wolfson, a spokesperson for the CPSC, which regulates residential gates, says the agency “intends to renew an education campaign that the CPSC did 10 years ago, to provide more and new information to the public and to property managers of communities that have automatic gates about the risks and the need to adhere to the UL standard.”

Automatic Gates Also Beset by Design Flaws

Crews, of Crews & Pesquera, located in Orlando, Florida doubts that a tougher standard or an education campaign will stem the tide of injuries and deaths because it won’t affect existing gate operators installed all over the U.S. 

He says that his investigation of the Chamberlain Elite CSW200UL Vehicular Swing Gate Operator, a 2002 model that is still offered for sale today, suffered from a design defect. According to a complaint that Crews filed the operator governing the 9.5-foot by 6.5-foot, 350 pound-gates was beset by numerous deficiencies, such as: the operator failed to have a built-in rotary encoder or motion control sensor to detect obstructions upon opening; failed to have an automated entrapment sensor; and failed to have a reversing mechanism that could detect the load produced by Lugo’s prone body. In addition, the lawsuit asserts, the emergency release lever was essentially useless in an emergency because it was secured under a cover, which was fastened with a bolt screw, requiring a tool to remove it; nor did it have an emergency stop button. And, the operator was designed so that the safety features could be overridden or over adjusted by service and maintenance workers so that the gate would not engage the clutch or other safety devices when opening to the full open or near open position.

Crews said that his experts found that where the gate was obstructed had a significant effect on the operation of the reversing mechanism. If the gate entraps a person at its mid-point, as occurred in the Lugo incident, instead of at its end, much more resistance is required to trip the reversing mechanism. His testing found that an adult male pushing against the gate with all his might could not force the gate to reverse. In fact, during the Lugo incident, two male rescue workers could not force the gate off of her chest, while the gate operator continued to run.

Gates with two reversing mechanisms were available in models that met the previous edition of the voluntary standard, but that it didn’t ensure that gates were installed that way. In some cases, the second mechanism was offered as an option, but was not purchased by the gate owner. 

“The industry has known since the 1990s that there are entrapment zones – they actually call them that,” he says. “People don’t realize how dangerous these gates are. Safety for children shouldn’t be an option.”